How to Start a Gratitude Practice to Change Your Life
“When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” -Lao Tzu
Somewhere in the distant past, out here in New Zealand, I recall someone saying to me “Be grateful for small mercies.”
Back in the 1950s, when I was a small girl, that meant being grateful for the simple things that made up the better part of my life.
As I grew, I forgot that piece of advice that someone, probably my beautiful grandmother, gave me way back then. But in 2010, I remembered it again.
Like so many people in the world in 2010, troubles were crowding in on me.
My American same-sex partner and I had not been able to see each other for over a year, due to both the usual constraints—American immigration law does not recognize our relationship—and the not so usual – the recession, joblessness, bankruptcy, and threatened foreclosure on our American home.
In July my father died in New Zealand and it was at that point I threw in the towel. Life was beyond me. Life was too big for me. I was like that small girl back in the 1950s trying to wear her big sister’s wool jersey only it was way too big for her—she was swamped!
At that moment I fired off an email to the great love of my life in New York. “Darling, I am beginning a gratitude list. Here are five things I am grateful for. Now you add to that and let’s start letting the universe know we love its small mercies!”
And so we did.
We began to shift our focus away from the pain we felt at not being able to be together, from the heartbreaking loss of people we loved and from the impending loss of the home where we had known such happiness.
Now I gave thanks for the silence that enabled me to hear the birdsong in my New Zealand garden, for my tea and toast, for my cozy bed, for the clear blue sky.
She gave thanks for the good deeds she had been able to do that day and for the help others had given her. She gave thanks for the beautiful day, for her pizza, and for the delicious water she was able to gather from an underground spring near her house in upstate New York.
And then, as the months went on, a curious thing happened. We stopped feeling alone. Together we summoned a power neither of us could have summoned alone.
We began to see that, in reality, we lacked nothing, despite the fact that I was lucky if I had $1.54 in my bank account at the end of most weeks and had not been able to afford to fly to my father’s funeral without borrowing money.
Despite the fact that she had to choose between paying the mortgage and paying her health care (which meant the mortgage had not been paid for a year). Despite the fact that we knew we would not see each other for another year at least!
Slowly, over time we awoke to the true value of our health, our deeply comforting long-distance love, the air we breathed, and the hot water that flowed in our homes. Slowly over time we came to see that, even amidst the loss and seeming deprivation, we were actually rich beyond words.
And then, in spite of the economic climate, the money began to roll in—slowly at first, and now in larger and larger amounts. We have been guided to find ways to avoid the threatened foreclosure. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, our home is safe!
Like so many people everywhere, my partner and I have spent the last few years on an exhausting roller coaster ride. I don’t allow myself to imagine where we would be now if we hadn’t remained loyal to the daily practice of gratitude over these many months.
Here’s what I have learned about starting a gratitude practice:
This is a spiritual practice that gains momentum over time and with practice. If you are like me you will have days where you can find every reason under the sun why you can’t possibly do it. (Isn’t putting the rubbish out much more important?!)
Gratitude doesn’t seem to come as easily as grumbling does, and you will likely resist this exercise until the cows come home, as they say in New Zealand. Waiting for the resistance to pass is futile. Just do it.
I have learnt from this experience that even when you can hardly summon up the energy to shift into gratitude—even when you have to force yourself to begin, it still has magnetizing power.
So do it. Sit down with pen and paper or at your computer and start, “I am grateful for …” Maybe you will have to stop there for a minute and wait because you just can’t think of anything. But just wait. Surrender to the moment. Something inside you will shift. The words will come.
This force that you are tapping into is bigger than you and it is bigger than your problem, no matter how big that is. That tide of fear that is overwhelming you is not all there is. There is so much more to you than that.
Your gratitude list is a bridge across those troubled waters to a resting place on the other side.
3. Write it down.
Sometimes, if we were both very busy, we would tell each other what we were grateful for during our daily phone conversation. For some reason I never felt this had as much power as writing. There was just something about the energy that seemed to surround the written list that set it apart.
4. Feel it.
Some days you will write without feeling a shred of gratitude. That’s ok. Just do it anyway. And when you can summon up the feeling of gratitude in your heart, let it percolate through every cell in your body. Embody it. Place your hands on your heart. Raise your head, lift your body up, and raise your arms.
Move into the feeling. Dance it. Sing it. Aspire to a fullness of heart, no matter what is going on around you.
5. Choose a set time of day.
You may want to do this when you first wake in the morning or late at night before you go to sleep. This is a tricky one for us since we live in different time zones. The best we can manage is that she usually writes her list to me while I am asleep and I usually write my list to her while she is asleep.
6. Practice present-moment gratitude.
As you move through your day, pause now and then when you remember, and think as you do something “I am grateful.”
I like to do this with my morning cup of tea. Try touching your tea or coffee cup with gentle love and appreciation before you take your first sip. Moving through your day with awareness and grace in this way will mean that when you do sit down to write your gratitude list those things will come to mind.
7. Share the gratitude.
Partner with someone. You may not have a life partner half a world away as I do (lucky you!) but find someone to partner with. You will keep each other going and that sense of obligation to that person will give you the push you need to write your list on those days when it just seems too hard.
Reading what the other person has written helps you to access your own gratitude more easily, and it is fun to watch your gratitude email grown longer and longer and longer! You can see your progress.
8. Don’t stop once you start to see results!
When we first began to see results we thought we’d take a break from gratitude for a while. We quickly saw though that the energy surrounding our recovery would then start to lag and lose some of its oomph. So we’d drag ourselves back into the practice again and, as if by magic, our recovery would regain its momentum.
9. Allow yourself to be human.
Grumble if you must. Miss the odd day here and there. Write “I am grateful I am writing my gratitude list” five times if you can think of nothing else. We sometimes went three or four days without writing.
We would deal with that by either playing catch up—writing a few days in one—or by just letting those few days go and starting back again where we left off. Beware the little voice that says “You’ve missed a day. You’ve failed miserably at being grateful!” Ignore it. Get back up on your horse and keep riding!